The Help and the Influence of Story

Richard Lindsay reviews The Help, the film based on the novel of the same name that has taken book clubs and readers across the country by storm. More after the jump.

Who knew this little movie about maids in Mississippi would become one of the summer’s hottest box office tickets and one of the most controversial films of the year? The ruckus over this film has mainly been about who gets to tell this story, how realistic it is, and whether it portrays the suffering of segregation with sufficient horror. The film was based on a novel written by a white woman, Kathryn Stocket, who based the story on a family servant who helped raise her in the 60’s. At times it comes off as a too-gentle rebuke of the segregation era in that it allows audiences to feel easy superiority over the most egregiously racist characters. And it does sometimes break down into a teary-eyed celebration of family, good food, wacky Southern ways, and the power of following your dreams—sort of like if Steel Magnolias had any black people in it.

But The Help is also a well-made period piece that recalls the anxiousness of the South of the early 1960’s. The film captures the reality that perhaps the most disturbing element of segregation was the blithe and unexamined racism of well-bred white families and their complete befuddlement at the need for a civil rights movement. This everyday household racism did far more to uphold Jim Crow than assassinations of civil rights leaders or the moronic pronouncements of Bull Connor and George Wallace.

The film is about a young white woman who returns to her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi during the throes of the Civil Rights struggles of the early 60’s. As a woman with a BA, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone) barely fits in with her old circle of female friends who have been concentrating on earning their “MRS.” As a cub writer for the local newspaper, her first job is to pound out the household hints column. In the process of asking for cleaning advice she gets to know one of her friends’ African-American servants, Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), who not only keeps house and cooks meals but acts as a surrogate parent to the hapless mother’s child. Skeeter soon discovers the real story is not how to get stains out of a shirt, but the story of the lives of the black maids of Jackson—“the help”—the underpaid staff who do most of the work holding the white households of the town together, with little time for their own lives and families.

When Skeeter takes a chance on asking Aibileen to open up about her stories as a maid, she soon finds herself in Aibileen’s kitchen on the black side of town, getting more than an earful from Aibileen and her friend Minny (Octavia Spencer). The project grows to include many of the household maids in the area as Skeeter puts together a book of their stories to expose the difficult and degrading situations under which these women work. In the process, her eyes are opened to her own family’s role in this oppressive system, including her parents’ recent firing of her beloved nanny and mentor, Constantine (Cicely Tyson).

Viola Davis as Aibileen Clark and Octavia Spencer as Minny.

What the film does well is demonstrate just how closely the lives of black people and white people have been intertwined in the South, perhaps no more so than during the era of segregation. You begin to see the folly in trying to tease out a “black version” and a “white version” of this history, as it is really a common American history, albeit one with vastly different perspectives on power.

There are several other elements that add to the value of The Help that have often been overlooked in the racial controversy over the film. For one, the film is unapologetically a women’s film, in that it is actually by women, about women, and told from women’s perspective. It even passes the Bechdel Test, which I only heard about this past week. Named for lesbian comic book artist Allison Bechdel, for a film to pass the test it must have 1.) Women (plural) 2.) talking to each other 3.) about something besides men. Think about it: only a handful of Hollywood films each year fit these criteria.

Another wrinkle in The Help is that most of our accounts about the Civil Rights era tend to focus on the “great men of history”—with the exception of Rosa Parks—and ignore the role of women in this struggle. This film helps us remember that the Civil Rights movement was made up of thousands of women—and men—who never had a holiday named after them, who through thousands of small acts of courage, transformed society.

There are also some excellent demonstrations of feminist and womanist (African-American feminist) theology in The Help, and I wouldn’t hesitate to use the film in class as a demonstration of some of these principles. The most obvious feminist theological principle, practiced throughout the film, is “table fellowship,” in which faith—and life—is seen as an ever-expanding circle of hospitality in which more and more people are drawn in. There are excellent examples of table fellowship when Aibileen invites Skeeter into her home for their first conversation, which grows to include Minny, and later, all the maids in the neighborhood. There are also some wonderful moments between Minny and her employer Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain) in which cooking and hospitality becomes a healing act for both of them. Tables are symbols of equality, which is why we talk about the importance of being given “a place at the table.” The revolutionary nature of blacks and whites sitting down at a table together, even today, but particularly in the Jim Crow era portrayed in this film, cannot be underestimated.

A different kind of table fellowship.

Out of this table fellowship grows two other feminist/womanist theological principles—the importance of narrative, and the extension of liberation to the community. As the women sit around their tables, sharing food and coffee, trust is created and they begin to share stories, starting with the more general and humorous, and gradually delving deeper into soul bearing of pain, hopes, and dreams. The film draws the viewer into the narrative and enacts this gradual uncovering, leading up to Aibileen’s disclosure about the conditions around her son’s death. This is where the film most effectively engages and challenges viewers with the horrible consequences of segregation. We understand the horror because we have been given time to get to know Abileen and identify with her, rather than being bashed over the head with an anti-racist diatribe. I love the line where Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter are discussing the possible illegality of their book project, and Minny says, “We’re not doing civil rights, we’re just telling stories.” Of course the power of these women’s stories is exactly what makes them subversive to the unjust order they’re trying to resist.

In terms of community liberation, the maids in particular practice this womanist concept well. While Skeeter’s story arc follows the classic white feminist concern of the advancement of an educated woman up the ladder of success, the maids seek a kind of liberation that does not merely lift themselves up but lifts up the whole community. They are willing to sacrifice some of their own advancement for the sake of their friends, children, extended family, and neighbors. When one of the maids makes a choice not to participate in the writing of the book because she doesn’t want to put her sons’ chances of going to college at risk, this is a community liberation act. Aibileen, and Skeeter’s nanny Constantine, in particular demonstrate this principle as their circle of concern goes beyond their own children to the white children they are raising, whom they treat with genuine love and care. They don’t allow the politics of the situation to interfere with the needs of a child, and they understand that helping these children to be more compassionate people may lead to a better future for everyone.

The most negative review I have read of The Help came from Salon critic Matt Zoller Seitz, a white man, who seemed to take it upon himself to be offended for all African Americans over the way the film whitewashes history. I find this approach insufferably self-indulgent. I really wonder if he asked any African American viewers what they thought about the film, or if he simply learned to write all essays on race from a stance of righteous white liberalism in college and this is the result.

Rex Ingram as De Lawd in The Green Pastures (1936).

During my years in Berkeley, I have grown tired of my fellow white liberals’ attempts to out-radical each other with their supposed ability to unflinchingly implicate themselves in the oppression of various races, classes, sexualities, and genders. White guilt is an indulgence of a privileged, educated class—just as placing black people, or any other group, in a monolithic community of the righteously oppressed is just another form of objectification. I began to understand this through some of our study of historical religious films here at GTU, including Hallelujah! and The Green Pastures, films with African American characters with whom I could identify across the twin barriers of prejudice and political correctness. The wall of prejudice says I cannot identify with the stories of black people because my white story is superior. The wall of political correctness says I have no right to identify with black stories because I am, ipso facto, as a result of my whiteness, the “oppressor.” Both of these approaches function to keep black people and white people “othering” each other, so that we are unable to acknowledge our common humanity. I would add The Help to the list of films that portray the humanity of black and white characters in ways that try to transcend society’s dividing lines of race.

As blacks and whites in America, our stories are so deeply entangled with each other that it’s hard to tell where one group begins and another ends. I compare this situation to the biblical story of Jacob and Esau, who wrestled with each other in their mother’s womb. There’s no question that Jacob, who as a young man steals his brother’s birthright, is the oppressive party in that story, a fact he must understand and come to terms with later in the narrative. But the whole story is about both Jacob and Esau. The African American and the White American were both conceived concomitantly at the birth of this nation. Our history is as caught up together as two fraternal twins who have wrestled with each other from the womb. We must learn to tell our story to each other, each from our own perspective, but with the understanding that the larger story of learning to love and respect one other across racial/ethnic divides is a narrative we all lay claim to as Americans.

In the spirit of dialogue around what I think is an important film about race relations in America, I’ll share a few articles on The Help from different perspectives:

From The New York Times, author and filmmaker Nelson George talks about the difficulty of encapsulating the complexities of the Civil Rights era on film. It serves as a good primer on some of the civil rights films that have been made, and the Big One that hasn’t been made: the Martin Luther King, Jr. story.

From The Root, Helena Andrews took five black female professional friends to see The Help and quizzed them on their reactions. Interestingly, she concludes that as middle class women they had more in common, at least economically and possibly socially, with the white women in the film.

I usually enjoy Matt Zoller Seitz’s writing on popular culture for Salon, but his review of The Help is an exception. He didn’t even have to see the film to write this.

Also from The Root, this article by Mary C. Curtis recounts a panel discussion on the film involving white women and black women, and laments the tendency for black people and white people to talk past each other in discussions of race.

The Help (146 mins.) is rated PG-13 for thematic material and is in theaters everywhere.